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Sustainable Development of Environmental Tourism
Case Study from Phuket

South East Asian Seminar on the Management of Coastal Cities and Towns
August 1994, Pattaya, Thailand

Noah Shepherd


SeaCanoe Thailand is proving that it is possible to develop and maintain a
sustainable business by giving priority to the conservation of the
environment. The success of the company, specialising in recreational
adventure tourism is largely due to the involvement of local, share owning
staff and managers who maintain a commitment to training, cross cultural
and natural history education, high standards of quality and above all else, a
commitment to environmental awareness. The company based in Phuket,
Thailand is an "Environment First" demonstration model, actively
campaigning for the future of environmentally responsible tourism in

Introduction and Background

In 1983, John Gray, a former professor at the University of Hawai'i, resigned
from his academic life to start a sea kayaking adventure travel company.
Gray, a life-long water sports enthusiast, was SCUBA certified at age 12,
and worked for a time as an instructor for the American Canoe Association.
A natural approach for Gray, whose love of the outdoors and sea kayaking
in particular, was to form a company specialising in marine adventure
travel. He had no interest in creating another company that simply ran
pleasure trips in Hawaii. The concept behind the company was based on a
'systems theory' (1) a form of thinking where all the elements of a 'system'
impact with one another. To Gray, there was a direct link between customer
care, environmentalism, product quality, progressive management, staff
welfare, education and training. Without any one of these interrelated
elements, it would not be possible to create a truly enlightened company.
Gray's business was small, but successful, and by 1988, he was running
kayaking expeditions throughout the Pacific Basin. In early 1989, he
conducted a survey to Thailand to investigate the sea caves in Phang Nga
Bay. He had heard of the intricacies of the limestone formations in the bay
and believed that there were inland tidal lagoons known as 'hongs' (Thai for
room), accessible via sea caves, only at precise tide levels. Local fishermen
knew of a few caves that lead to easily accessible hongs, but Gray's
expedition teams successfully discovered a number of "secret" hongs, which
were previously unknown even by the local fishermen.

Following his return to Hawaii, Gray decided to return to Thailand to set up
a company that would take people to see these marvels. At first people
thought that he was mad - his idea to charge guests $US100 a day to see a
few caves and hongs in Phang Nga Bay sounded crazy. Gray's guides,
however, supported his vision and became his partners and SeaCanoe was
formed. At that time, tourists were booking trips to James Bond Island or
Phi Phi Island for as little as $US10 for a day trip since there were no other
options other than these low budget, high volume and low quality local

Gray planned to use systems theory to provide a top quality trip that would
not only take people to beautiful places, but more importantly would also
give them a true experience that would inspire them to question their own
role and relationship within the environment. The company was to be a
demonstration project that would prove its own statement of purpose.
'Statement of purpose' as opposed to the more formal 'Mission Statement''
was used to reflect Gray's aspirations to prove that it was possible to run an
"environment first" business based on previously untested ideals.
"SeaCanoe develops sustainable business opportunities with local people that
promote environmental conservation by providing high quality recreational
adventures specialising in natural history and cross-cultural education."
The key to the whole statement was that the ultimate success of the company
was its ability to promote environmental conservation, otherwise there
wouldn't be any product to market.

SeaCanoe offered a totally unique trip for tourists; guests were taken to
pristine sites that no photograph could capture and served meals that
rivaled Phuket's top hotels and restaurants. The expeditions featured multi-
lingual, well paid guides trained to international standards; inflatable
canoes, custom built to demanding specifications; environmental and natural
history knowledge; enlightened customer care - guides treated guests as
friends and didn't act like their servants; low volume groups allowed guests
to enjoy an intimate meaningful trip, rather than a herded tour experience of
up to 200 people.

Five years later, SeaCanoe is the largest revenue producer for the biggest
tour wholesaler in Phuket. Day trips are full every day and the company has
expanded to Ko Samui and Krabi. The company runs expeditions in South
Thailand, and has conducted exploratory trips in Vietnam. In 1995, the
company plans to start operations in the Philippines. Not once have the
original ideals been changed, and based on these, the company goes from
strength to strength.

Issues relating to the success of SeaCanoe

1) Local Ownership and Management

SeaCanoe's policy is one of local management and control. The involvement
of local people was of major importance. Local employees and managers had
knowledge of the area, while locals who had often been fishermen or lived
on the islands could be easily trained as kayak guides. Putting the ownership
of the company into local hands may well reduce the desire to sell ancestral
lands for short term profits, especially if the locals appreciated the true value
of land as an environmental asset.

83% of SeaCanoe is owned by Thais, 99% of the shares are owned by those
who work in the company. There are no outside investors. Gray believed
that the shares in the company should go to those that took responsibility for
the success of the company. This worked in the initial stages as an equal
split between the original five partners, two westerners and three Thais. The
departure of two of the Thai partners lead to a restructure in 1993 that gave
shares to guide staff who had been with the company since the early days.
Management is a harder issue. Operation Management is handled very
successfully by Thai managers. Marketing, especially international marketing
is an area where Thais are inexperienced. At SeaCanoe, international marketing functions are handled by Westerners. For the future,
new SeaCanoe centres set up in Southeast Asia will have their international
marketing handled by the parent company.

The ultimate aim is to have each centre with only one Westerner in a
management position. The reason for this is simple; most of the guests come
from the West and a manager from a similar culture is both sensible and
necessary. Many guests and travel agents from foreign countries need some
form of reassurance that the company that they are spending a lot of money
with will not disappear off the face of the earth with their deposits. Also,
when problems arise, a Western face is often more reassuring. Xenophobia
is one problem that we have not managed to eradicate.

2) Human Resource Management

Part of SeaCanoe's policy is the continuing training and education of its
staff. All staff are encouraged to continue with external education and are
allowed time off with full pay to study within working hours. The company
has used the services of the American Canoe Association (ACA) to certify
its guide staff to internationally accepted standards. There is no equivalent
of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) for sea
kayaking but Gray himself is an ACA Instructor and the company has its
own training programme. Currently, negotiations are taking place to set up
a Thai/Southeast Asia kayaking association with help from the Tourist
Authority of Thailand (TAT), the Royal Thai Navy and the Army. Such a
move will help improve standards across the fledgling sea kayaking industry
in the Kingdom. Guide staff who have reached varying qualifications
receive a remuneration package similar to their counterparts in the USA. To
SeaCanoe, a qualified guide receives qualified guide's pay no matter where
he works. The Navy and the TAT have helped provide training for first aid,
CPR and marine rescue for guide staff.

Environmental training is an important part of the development of all staff.
As much local knowledge is taught to guide staff as possible; natural
history, geology, flora, fauna and environmental issues are updated
regularly. We believe that our guide staff should be knowledgeable in all
aspects of the area - that does not mean knowing which tailor or souvenir
shop pays the most commission. Guides are encouraged to learn another
second language other than English.

3) Overall Quality

SeaCanoe believes that its product is not perfect unless the quality is of the
highest standard. By quality, we do not only mean the management concept
of 'quality equals consistency', but also means the best that we can possibly
offer. This is reflected in our guide staff who make a point of treating guests
as their own family. Our guide staff are multi lingual. Our meal plan
receives constant compliments. We refuse to serve guests polystyrene boxes
of fried rice as many tour companies offer. We serve a full Thai seafood
buffet that is cooked fresh on board our escort boats by two cooks. Our boats
and equipment are the best we can afford. Guests do not just see beautiful
scenery, they take part in a family experience which to many, is the closest
that they will get to seeing the real Thailand.

4) Environmental Concern and Related Issues

By far the biggest single ideal is that of environmental conservation, without
which, the company would not exist. By prioritising the environment,
SeaCanoe has developed into a pressure group as well as a tour operator.
The latest buzz word in the travel industry is ecological or eco-tourism. The
use of eco-tourism as a word is similar to the word green that is used
commonly in Europe to denote anything that is 'environmentally friendly'.
Unfortunately, marketers have latched onto the green concept and now
goods that are sold in a green package are sometimes perceived as
environmentally friendly. A can of shaving foam that contains no
fluorocarbons as a propellant and marketed as environmentally friendly is
obviously more friendly than one that contains products that may damage
the ozone layer. But the product that does the least harm is a block of soap
that is lathered with a brush. Both cans present a disposal problem. This use
of lip service to the care of the environment is not only found in consumer
products, but also in tourism.

The holiday resort built on disused, ruined land is not eco-tourism. It may be
a thoughtful design, but a resort complex is identical to a condominium or
housing development. Design of a building such as a hotel is just that - a
hotel. On the whole, the project does not promote the 'local' elements
discussed above. A hotel design that cares for waste disposal and the saving
of electricity and water is acting responsibly, as should all building design.
This is good design and planning, but it is not ecotourism.

A company that runs tourist programmes that are environmentally sensitive
must fully understand the nature of environmental protection. This is not a
question of going to beautiful places and showing them to anyone willing to
pay. To call oneself an eco-tourism company, a word which we do not like to
use in SeaCanoe, the whole of the operation must understand the issues from the
top to the bottom. SeaCanoe guides, many of whom come from local fishing
communities were initially uneducated in this field. This is not a reflection
on the guides themselves, but a lack of environmental awareness in Thai
society and virtually no information on this topic in the Thai education
curriculum. Guides were happy to throw rubbish and empty bottles into the
sea until it was explained to them why this habit was unacceptable. Not only
was the rubbish polluting the environment, but it was leaving ugly visual
traces that paying guests did not want to see. If guests wished to see
thousands of plastic bottles floating in the sea, oil slicks and dead coral then
they could visit Phi Phi Island (2). Once hailed as one of the most beautiful
islands in the world, this National Park now houses bungalows, hotels,
souvenir shops, money changers, bars and restaurants for the pleasure of the
visiting tourists. Sensible tour operators from Phuket are now beginning to
remove the Phi Phi Island day trip from their programmes because of
continual complaints from customers.

In commercialising the 'hongs', SeaCanoe has in the past been criticised for
taking guests into pristine sites. We defend this claim and state that if we
had not done so ourselves, someone less responsible would eventually do the
same. In visiting these sites, guests must adhere to a strict set of rules in the
caves and 'hongs'; no touching, no talking, no eating, no drinking, no
smoking and certainly no collection of souvenirs.

SeaCanoe, as Thailand's most active eco-tourism environmental
campaigner, has recently been asked by local people to help commercialise
private land consisting of monsoon rain forest adjacent to a National Park.
The land contains tigers and bears yet is very close to a major arterial road.
Poachers of both wood and wildlife are causing a problem to the owners who
feels that the running of jungle trekking on his land, with a Western tourist
clientele, will deter poachers.

When SeaCanoe first started, very few people visited Phang Nga Bay other
than James Bond Island tours. Today, more and more people visit the bay in
varying forms of transport. It is rumoured that one operator will, in the next
high season, be running a large pleasure boat in the bay that will house a
fleet of jet skis. One operator that takes groups of Korean tourists to an
easily accessible cave and 'hong' on Ko Penak, an island in the bay that has
been visited for years, allows it's guests to carve their names in the rock in
the cave. Another operator has copied the entire SeaCanoe programme (3).
This operator offers no training, guides have no knowledge of first aid, let
alone kayaking skills, the company has no enforced policy on the
environment, taking up to 30 guests at one time into caves. Their guides
have shown guests where to pick live coral and collect stalactites and allow
their guests have waterfights in the 'hongs'. These two operators may well be
taking guests to places of natural beauty, but their activities are far from

Eco-Tourism as a revenue generator, white knight or policeman?

SeaCanoe is a small company. It would take eight companies of the same
size to generate as much income as a small first class hotel in Phuket.
Clearly, the establishment of more high quality 'eco-tourism' companies
would be a minute percentage of the income that Thailand receives from
tourism. However, there are two main issues where those sensible companies
can play a very important role:

Firstly, the establishment of small scale operations in more remote poorer
but attractive areas where the introduction of low key tourism can generate
considerable income for local people. An example of this where SeaCanoe is
working, is the setting up of projects for fishing villages where the fish
population has been depleted. A movement away from fishing, with for
example kayaking trips as a revenue for the village will allow more
prosperity, and, the opportunity for an increase in the fish population. Such
projects need not have any impact on the environment whatsoever, on the
contrary, they may help restore the natural habitat of wildlife.
Secondly is the role played in the much larger issue of the mass destruction
of a country's most important resource; its own environment. True eco-
tourism companies are helping to provide awareness to the public, tourists
and government, about the natural environment that is being squandered.
Eco-tourism companies constantly bring forward environmental issues. For
example, SCUBA diving at the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea has
deterred the blasting of coral reefs by fishermen.

As an example of tourism gone mad, the disasters of Pattaya are now being
fully understood. Once a quaint Thai seaside town, Holiday Which
Magazine, in 1992, voted it as one of the world's ten worst beach resorts (5).
If Thailand does not learn from the mistakes made in Spain when tourism
boomed there in the 1960s and 70s, then high quality, high revenue tourism
will be a thing of the past in twenty years. Thai resorts will be full of cheap
package holiday makers who do not appreciate quality and have no money
to spend. Short term gains will be long term disasters. Diethelm Travel, the
largest operator in Thailand now claim that 'Western tourists are tending to
place more importance on the naturalness of place they visit...sites replete
with healthy flora and fauna are turning out to be more popular than sand
and sun spots fully equipped with modern facilities' (6).

Environmental awareness in the West is booming and assuming that the
Western visitors to the Kingdom are looking for a more 'natural' holiday,
what can be done to preserve the beauty of the country? This is not only for
tourists, but also for the people of Thailand who have every right to enjoy
their own beautiful country. Furthermore, it is for the preservation of the
environment of the planet.

1) There needs to be a compete blanket ban on any further commercial
development whatsoever within any National Park.

2) The National Parks Division needs a massive budget to protect its
resources. Within this budget, properly trained well paid rangers should
patrol all parks at all times. Well paid staff will discourage resorting to other
forms of income. National Parks need well informed visitor centres to
educate guests.

3) Wildlife sanctuaries need to be set up within National Parks.

4) Zones for tourism with set volume limits within National Parks is
required. This will limit the number of tourists within sensitive areas.

5) A system of licensing for operators that is adhered to is required. All
operators should have fully qualified and trained staff. The TAT is starting
to carry this out which is welcomed, unfortunately, their powers are limited.

6) A massive public education campaign is required to make Thai people
more aware of their environment. Those Thais that do understand the issues
are taking the matter very seriously. Unfortunately, they are a small

We must accept that these measures will make tourism more expensive for
the average tourist. This is not such a bad thing. Tourists do not seem to
object to paying for quality once they realise what they are getting. Are we
being exclusive when we exclude those tourists with a smaller budget?
Perhaps so, but what is more important - a country that can be proud of its
natural beauty that has been saved from total destruction, or a few happy


(1) Capra, Fritjof. 1982. The Turning Point. New York: Simon and Schuster
(2) Gray, D;Piprell,C;Graham,M. 1991. National Parks of Thailand.
Communication Resources (Thailand) Ltd.
(3) PATA Travel News. March 1994
(4) The Nation. May 26th 1994
(5) Gray,P; Ridout,L. 1992. The Rough Guide To Thailand. London: Rough
(6) Bangkok Post. October 31st 1993

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